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New Mexico’s new father-son duo believe they’re both where they belong

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Newly hired New Mexico coach Craig Neal shares a hug with Kendall Williams last season (USA Today Sports Image …

When newly hired New Mexico coach Craig "Noodles" Neal pulled into his driveway following his introductory press conference last month, he found his son waiting inside the house to chat with him.

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Cullen Neal (Rivals.com)

Cullen Neal told his dad he wanted to back out of the letter of intent he signed with Saint Mary's and play at New Mexico, which forced the elder Neal to do something few coaches ever do: Try to talk a top recruit out of committing on the spot.

"I had to take off my coaching hat for a second and play the role of dad," Craig Neal said. "I wanted to give him my expectations of him, have him look at the pluses and minuses of it and allow him to get feedback from other people on what it's like to play for your dad. It's a weird thing because he's a really good player who can help the program the next four years, but I wanted to make sure he didn't make the decision on emotion."

Before Craig would allow Cullen to make a choice, he took his son to the Final Four in Atlanta to speak with other father-son duos about the experience of playing for dad or coaching their kid. Cullen chatted with Valparaiso's Bryce Drew, Creighton's Greg McDermott and Oklahoma's Lon Kruger and exchanged texts with Doug McDermott, each of whom described the father-son dynamic as challenging at times but also rewarding.

That Cullen reaffirmed his desire to come to New Mexico after returning from Atlanta is a coup for a Lobos program suddenly in need of depth on the perimeter. With junior Tony Snell turning pro, junior Demetrius Walker transferring and incoming freshman Bryce Alford opting to follow his dad to UCLA, immediate playing time should be available to Cullen next season behind guards Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood.

"I'm really excited about my decision," Cullen said. "I wanted to do a lot of research and my dad knew a lot of guys who had been through it. They gave me a bunch of great advice. They told me playing for your dad is going to have its ups and downs that you have to work through but that it's going to be the best experience of my life. They said they wouldn't want to do anything else."

The most unusual part of Cullen playing for his dad at New Mexico is it will be the first time the elder Neal has ever coached his son. Whereas many dads get this milestone out of the way when their son is in grade school, Craig Neal was content to just be a dad in the stands when Cullen was a kid and could not coach Cullen because of NCAA rules once he became a recruitable prospect.

Though Cullen never played for his dad, he certainly benefited from growing up in a basketball-oriented family.

From attending New Mexico practices and walk-throughs the past six years, to tagging along on recruiting trips, to watching game film, Cullen received his basketball education from his dad. The knowledge aided Cullen on the floor as he developed an excellent feel for the game and a high basketball IQ to go along with good size for a combo guard and deep range out to behind the 3-point arc.

"I think you can see my dad's impact in my game," Cullen said. "When I was younger, I wanted to go to practice every day and watch every game film with him. That helped out a lot."

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Cullen Neal signs with Saint Mary's last November (via SMCGaels.com)

As Cullen emerged as one of the two best players in the state of New Mexico midway through his high school career, it seemed like a natural fit that he'd become a Lobos standout one day. The trouble was New Mexico had a glut of guards in the program and the state's other best player was Bryce Alford, the son of New Mexico coach Steve Alford and a fellow guard whose cerebral, high-scoring game was very, very similar to Cullen's.

Since Craig Neal and Steve Alford were longtime best friends and Bryce and Cullen were very close as well, the competition between the two high school stars always remained amicable. Nonetheless, it stung Cullen when it became clear Steve Alford was going to take Bryce at New Mexico, leading the elder Neal to advise his son to look for another school where playing time would be available more quickly.

"He didn't talk about it much, but I think it was really hard for him to hear that," Craig Neal said. "At the time, it wasn't in Cullen's best interest to come to New Mexico because Bryce and him were so similar and because we just had so many guards. It was going to be very hard for both Bryce and Cullen to come here and be happy because only one of them would be able to play right away."

Eventually Cullen moved on and sought out an out-of-state program that appeared to be a better fit. He chose Saint Mary's because he developed a good relationship with coach Randy Bennett and because the Gaels had a history of developing elite point guards, from Patrick Mills, to Mickey McConnell, to Matthew Dellavedova.

The 6-foot-4, 180-pound Neal was all set to go to Saint Mary's and perhaps become the heir apparent to Dellavedova until UCLA hired Alford away from New Mexico at the end of March. Craig knew Alford was in talks with UCLA for about 48 hours before his departure became official, but he and Cullen didn't discuss the potential ramifications at that point because it wasn't clear who the next coach of the Lobos would be.

Having been passed over the previous spring by Colorado State and the year before that by his alma mater, Georgia Tech, Craig Neal knew better than to assume he'd be New Mexico's top choice once Alford left. Only after Alford publicly campaigned for his best friend to get the job and Lobos players wore homemade "UNM HIRE NOODLES" T-shirts around campus did New Mexico administrators decide to value continuity and make the elder Neal their permanent hire.

"It was humbling and very overwhelming the support I got from the community, from Steve and also from the players," the elder Neal said. "I tried to get the job at Georgia Tech, where I played, and I tried to get the Colorado State job, but it just didn't work out. I definitely feel fortunate my patience paid off and I get to coach at a place I really like."

Since New Mexico administrators didn't reveal they were hiring Neal until the day before his press conference, Cullen and his dad didn't seriously discuss the possibility of him becoming a Lobo until after the hire became official. It was only then that Cullen brought it up with his father, that Craig told him to do his research and that the two of them came to the mutual decision it was best for both their family and the program.

The only person it clearly wouldn't be good for was Bennett, which made for a difficult phone call for Cullen. The Saint Mary's coach hated losing a player of Cullen's caliber so impossibly late in the recruiting process, but he certainly wasn't going to stand in the way of a son playing for his father.

"It was probably the toughest conversation of my life," Cullen said. "I had built a great relationship with Coach Bennett. He was very understanding. He was upset, but then again who wouldn't be? He was really good through the whole thing."

Now that the decision-making process is finally over and Cullen will be remaining in Albuquerque, he's looking forward to playing for his dad. He knows the transition may be rough at first, but he told his father he only has one expectation.

"I'm fine with him getting on me, but the big thing is I want him to be a father off the court and a coach on the court," Cullen said.

For the first time in his life, Craig Neal will get to fill both those roles – and he can't wait.

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